Can Social Workers Be Competent? And Other Conundrums Arising from Charles Murray's Call for Replacing College Degrees with Competency Exams

Peter Wood

The National Association of Scholars last semester issued The Scandal of Social Work Education, a report that detailed the substitution of ideology for legitimate course content in the curricula of ten nationally important schools of social work. Since then, we have received reports of similar problems at schools of social work not included in the study.   The role of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in fomenting this mis-education has also become clearer. CSWE’s standards for accrediting social work programs are a mélange of ideological litmus tests. Moreover in 48 states, an individual has to have graduated from a CSWE-accredited school in order to receive a license to practice social work. (The exceptions are Idaho and New York.)

All this was brought to mind again today by a provocative article in The Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray, who argues that the bachelor’s degree as an all-purpose credential is obsolete. He recommends that the Certified Public Accountants exam is a better model. That is, candidates for jobs that require a command of a body of expert knowledge should be tested on what they know. The tests should be rigorous, standard, and tough. It wouldn’t matter how a student prepared for them. He could take a sequence of college courses or retreat to a cave in the mountains with a pile of books and a wi fi connection. What would matter is the student’s success in mastering the material, not the avenue by which the mastery was achieved. 

What especially caught my eye, however, was Murray’s speculation about where his CPA-exam model might most readily apply. He writes, “The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education.” A BA is generally not the entry-level qualification for social workers in the United States. Rather, to enter the field, most states require a masters degree in social work (an MSW). But Murray’s larger point remains. Social work is among the professions in which practitioners should have ready command of specific knowledge. There is no reason in principle why we couldn’t just test candidates to see if they meet the threshold of competence in the field, regardless of what degrees they hold, if any. 

Such a reform would remove from the CSWE the authority it has so abused in the last twenty years. Perhaps CSWE could find another function or, more likely, it would fade away. But Murray’s CPA-like certification does raise some questions. What exactly would a social work certification exam (SWC) cover? Who would devise it? 

The CPA exam works in large part because accountants basically agree over what accountants should know, and that picture matches closely with what the people who employ accountants expect. No one wants to hire an accountant who arrives at the office to explain that arithmetic is culturally biased against the innumerate and that he is going to employ the techniques of social justice accounting instead. Rather, accountants are expected to have a firm grasp of debits and credits, the tools of the trade, and the full-range of FASB and GASB standards. 

Does social work have an analogous body of expert knowledge?   An outsider might easily imagine so. We might like to think that a qualified social worker can be counted on to recognize the symptoms of malnutrition, lead poisoning, child abuse, and domestic violence; that a social worker would know local building codes, fire safety, and other applicable city and state regulations; that a social worker would understand the full range of services available to people in need, including medical, legal, and financial services.   It wouldn’t be hard to expand this list, nor would it be hard to make the case that social workers should possess certifiable competency over the whole range of subjects, not just the few that pertained to one job. 

By analogy, an accountant who has earned a CPA ought to be able to audit both a for-profit and a non-profit enterprise. Likewise, we ought to expect social workers who deal with the problems of children and the aged, and issues that range from housing to health care.  

But would social workers in general or the leading figures in this field assent to such a model of what it takes to be an effective social worker? I suspect not. My suspicion is based on how the social work profession reacted to the NAS study: it has attempted to shrug it off and, when that hasn’t worked, to reiterate as loudly as possible the claims that social work education is better understood as preparing future social workers to transform American society, rather than preparing them to help people in need. The people-in-need stuff for sure remains in the mix, but the trendy position in social work is that American society is so racist, misogynist, and multi-dimensionally oppressive that the best way to help anyone is to organize communities of the oppressed for direct political action. 

This quasi-revolutionary doctrine isn’t the only thing that schools of social work teach, but increasingly it is the main thing. The CSWE promulgates it; almost all schools of social work enthusiastically embrace it; and a good many social work faculty members proudly join in the effort to inculcate their students with it.   In that light, who is left to define the core knowledge that a CPA-style examination would test for?   If the field of social work right now were to take up the task of defining what it considers core knowledge, I expect the list would begin something like this:

America is a racist society. The student should be able to identify institutional racism in education, law, government, business, entertainment, and all other social domains.

America is a sexist society. The student should be able to demonstrate the oppression of women in all domains mentioned above as well as to detail the ways in which marriage itself is inherently oppressive.

America is a heterosexist society. Notwithstanding that marriage is inherently oppressive, it is also oppressive that queer individuals are denied access to it in most states.

Rights of private property in the United States are grossly distorted in favor of the rich. The student should command an understand of the class-based distribution of wealth in America and the legal and other means by which social justice can be obtained. 

 More likely, the sultans of social work, wary of having their key ideas put up for public inspection, would simply reject the very concept of a competency-based examination. They might prefer that wonderful device called “holistic assessment,” which allows the examiner the two great freedoms of intellectual sloth: vagueness and opacity. 

So I agree with Murray in principle, but it would take an extraordinary intervention from outside the field of social work to accomplish his proposed reform.

I am taking hold of Murray’s argument in connection with his social work example because the National Association of Scholars has done recent work on social work education. But would the same caveats apply to other fields he mentions: criminal justice, public administration and “the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education?” My guess is that social work represents the extreme end of the spectrum. It is a field so far gone in its descent into anti-American ideology that competency testing at a high level is unreachable, short of major regulatory changes in each of the states. 

What Murray would need as proof of principle is for one field that doesn’t already have a rigorous competency exam to try out his approach. I can imagine computer science, for example, as a plausible candidate. But there are hitches here too. Fewer and fewer American students are pursuing degrees in computer science or any other science. If a tough exam were offered as a way to leap-frog the degree, we might end up with even fewer computer scientists.   That’s because the field itself would lose visibility and lose its definition as a distinct body of knowledge. Computer science may be especially susceptible to such dissolution.    Not so long ago, there was no such thing as a degree in computer science. People generally learned computing in connection with their work in science and engineering and migrated into jobs in computing to seize opportunities.   The academic field of computer science crystallized around a felt need for more systematically trained professionals.   Possibly we’ve outgrown that need (or outsourced it to India, or H1B visa-ed it to oblivion) but shifting to a certification system in computer science would certainly finish the job.

Or to put this in more general terms, the existence of a field as an area of professional practice at least in some cases depends on the continuing life of its ivory tower counterpart as a specialized field of study. We would no doubt have accountants even if we didn’t have MBAs and undergraduate accounting majors. But would we have particle physicists? Bioengineers? 

This looks to me like another flaw in Murray’s proposal. Now we have two. In a field such as social work, a CPA-style exam would be highly desirable but extremely difficult to establish, since it would run counter to the interests of current practitioners. In a field like computer science, a CPA-style exam might be easier to establish, but could come at the cost of losing the intellectual capital built up by universities in the last forty years. 

I see one more flaw in Murray’s proposal –a flaw in the overall idea that education is mainly for the purpose of producing individuals who possess bodies of specialized knowledge. Certainly this is one of the purposes of higher education, and Murray has a strong case that our system of encouraging nearly everyone to pursue a bachelor’s degree is a poor way to attain that purpose.   But higher education has goals beyond credentialing people as supposedly competent accountants, social workers, computer scientists, and the like. It is also a means by which individuals can come into possession of a cultural inheritance. It includes knowing in some depth our civilization’s and our nation’s history; possessing the skills to write and speak well; having read closely and in conversation with fellow readers at least a few of the key works of literature in our tradition and having a passing familiarity with some of the others; knowing what some of the key debates are in philosophy and religion; and having a mind trained as much to synthesis and integration as it is to analysis and particularization. Our cultural inheritance includes achievements in mathematics and the sciences, and in music and the arts; and to truly possess it, an individual needs to attain something beyond “cultural literacy.” We have to reach the point of entering into some of the underlying civilizational debates, not just knowing what they are or where some cultural vandal has allegedly thrown the remnants.

I’m a bit diffident about bringing this up as a flaw in Murray’s plan because, after all, there is so very little of this kind of encompassing liberal arts education left in the United States. A vast number of colleges and universities could close their doors with little loss to liberal arts education, at least in the idealized form I have sketched. But still. Behind all the wasteful extravagance, ideological maundering, anti-intellectualism, and plain debauchery in contemporary American higher education, something still persists of the old effort to build a living connection between the coming generation and its cultural inheritance. If we lose that, we lose a great deal more than an assembly-line for well-trained knowledge-workers.

Murray is perfectly right that our current system of higher education accomplishes much less than it should, and he has offered a bold alternative that truly does deserve serious consideration.   I’d like to see more clearly how his proposal would deal with the three issues I’ve raised: professional fields that oppose a competency-based model; the threat of undermining useful academic disciplines; and the de-contextualization of specialized knowledge.




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